Time Management Tips When Setting Your Own Schedule
It all sounded so lovely — and liberating.
The lockdown was scary, sure, and we missed our friends, but now we could work from home and set our own schedules. For some of us, that meant we didn’t need to spend two hours a day commuting to headquarters, fighting the traffic if we drove or bumping into other straphangers if we took the Metro, the subway or the bus.
And guess what? Our employers discovered that — thanks to Zoom and comparable technological godsends — we were just as productive as ever and sometimes more so.
There were other benefits, too: A July 2022 study of more than 1,600 engineers, marketing and finance employees showed, for example, that working from home reduced attrition rates by 35%.
Plus, we got to sleep late if we wanted or spend more time with the kids. We could take an afternoon hike. We could write that report once the little rug rats were in bed. And we would be treated as grown-ups, trusted by our bosses to get our work done without someone looking over our shoulder.
And Now the Bad News
Unfortunately, it hasn’t always worked out that way. Instead of “setting our own schedules,” too many of us find we’re working 24/7 because we’re constantly checking our phones, receiving and sending texts and emails.
We’re trying desperately to accommodate the schedules of other people — co-workers, notably — who think they are setting their own schedules. They might be early birds, meaning they’re sending that report to you at 6 am, when you logged off only three hours before that time.
And if you are a night owl, you still have to get to that meeting on Capitol Hill, where people are still “working 9 to 5” or, more often than that, 9 to 7. And when you do grab that midafternoon nap, you feel guilty.
What to do?
How are we to restore some order (and a modicum of sanity) to our schedules and reclaim that “work-life balance” that all enlightened managers have paid lip service to, even as the pandemic threw all those noble aspirations out with the used home-test kits?
In an article in Microsoft’s WorkLab, experts in time management offer a few useful insights — and actionable suggestions.
- “We have to learn to set boundaries in a way that was not necessary before,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock and other books. “That means we talk with other members of our team about how we can all work most effectively together and that we talk with our manager. Don’t assume because you receive an email from your boss at 1 am that they expect an immediate response. Maybe they have no such expectation. Maybe they sent it at that hour because that was when they were working but they will be perfectly happy if you don’t answer until the next morning. By the same token, you can write an email at 1 am, if that is when you are working, but save it as a draft, scheduling it for sending at 8 am. A wise manager will try to work things out for what works best for you and for them.”
- Create guardrails, not just boundaries. “Boundaries are personal,” Anne Helen Petersen, co-author of Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, told Microsoft’s Worklab. Boundaries “are the responsibility of the individual. Guardrails are policies that everyone in an organization buys into — like not emailing on a Saturday to prevent burnout — so they become part of the corporate culture. They protect everyone.”
- Figure out how you are most productive and then manage your time accordingly. “For most of us, we need to schedule time for our ‘deep work,’” says Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist and the author of Stress-Free Productivity. “Often that is in the morning, and that should be our uninterrupted time. We can discuss this with our co-workers and our managers, too. After this period of ‘deep work,’ we should take what I call a ‘vitamin D’ walk. Sunshine is good for our mental health, our mood and our creativity. It helps us work more effectively when we get back indoors.”
- Once you’ve done the tasks that require the most individual concentration — that “deep work,” as Boyes calls it — you can schedule a period for more collaborative work. “You and your co-workers can set a time, maybe from 10:30 to noon, for working together, and then set some time in the afternoon for more formal meetings.”
- Track your own hours, so you feel less guilty for taking that afternoon walk — or nap. “You’ll often discover that you’re working the same hours or even more than you did when you reported every day to the office. You’re just moving the blocks of time around,” Vanderkam says. “You’ll feel good about how much you are working, not apologetic.”
- Allow your mind to wander away from work. Realize that that midmorning bike ride actually makes you more productive. “We need to understand the ‘wandering mind,’” Boyes says. “We tend to overestimate the importance of focus and the focused mind. In fact, when you allow your mind to wander, the path forward — the solution to some problem — will become clear.”
So set those boundaries. Establish those guardrails. And take a power nap. We’ll wake you in six months to see how that’s working out.